The Binge Interview: Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre on “Obvious Child”

To know Jenny Slate is to love Jenny Slate. Maybe you first encountered her during her brief stint on Saturday Night Live, on which she realized the first-day-on-the-job nightmare of accidentally saying “fuck” on live TV during her premiere episode while Megan Fox sat next to her in a Jersey-girl wig (it’s a very specific nightmare). Like her fellow short-lived SNL sisters in under-appreciation, Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins, Slate immersed herself in far more interesting work than the show afforded her as soon as she was free. She’s since established herself as a comedy MVP, earning legions of loyal fans through her deliriously gonzo performances on shows such as Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, and House of Lies. Her distinctly expressive and adaptable voice has also made her a voiceover darling for projects ranging from Bob’s Burgers and The Lorax to her viral sensation Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

But there’s much more to Slate than funny faces and weird voices. A Columbia University graduate who was previously the valedictorian at tony prep school the Milton Academy, Slate is fiercely intelligent and unerringly intuitive; beneath her delightful exterior is a disarming depth, directness, and sensitivity. She is pointedly honest and seems to strive for authenticity in each moment. And good lord, her charisma. Part of the intoxicating charm of watching Slate perform is just feeling her work, all the gurgling bubbles and waves of energy she emits, each feeling entirely new and totally fresh, in a cadence that’s utterly unpredictable and absolutely unique to her. And now, after shining in so many supporting roles, Slate is ready to unleash the fullest realization yet of her estimable talents as a performer: an invaluable comedy called Obvious Child.

The auspicious feature-length debut of writer/director Gillian Robespierre, expanding her 2009 short of the same name into a movie that she wrote with Slate in mind, Obvious Child is the refreshingly frank story of a young Brooklyn woman named Donna (Slate). A standup comedian, Donna suddenly finds her life falling down around her when she gets humiliatingly broken up with by her boyfriend in a divey public restroom, and then learns that the bookstore where she works a day job is closing. Although she has the support of her best friends, fellow standup Joey (played by Slate’s real-life comedy partner Gabe Liedman) and tough-talking Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), as well as her divorced parents, goofy Jacob (Richard Kind) and stern Nancy (Polly Draper), Donna nonetheless goes into a downward spiral—one that includes a seemingly innocuous hookup with an ostensibly incompatible Manhattan finance guy named Max (Jake Lacy). In keeping with her bad luck, Donna gets pregnant from the hookup, and quickly schedules an abortion. But when Max begins making overtures that suggest he’s looking for more than a one-night stand, Donna has to decide whether or not to let him in.

Hysterically funny and piercingly poignant in equal measure, Obvious Child is a small, sweet miracle of a movie. It presents Donna as a genuinely messy warts-and-all heroine, brought exquisitely to life by Slate’s deeply felt, emotionally wide-ranging performance. She never hits a false note for a single frame. Below, Slate and Robespierre discuss the origins of the project (including its San Francisco connection), their love-hate relationship with Crocs (which are prominently featured in the film), the secret to giving the perfect pep talk, and much more.

Was it important to create distinct standup personae for the characters of Donna and Joey that were different from the standup personae of Jenny Slate and Gabe Liedman? Was it kinda like how Mariah Carey had to learn all-new singing mannerisms when she filmed Glitter?

Jenny Slate: Right! That’s very interesting. I was trying to think of Padma Lakshmi’s song from that movie but I can’t remember it. If it crosses your mind during this interview, let me know.

Gillian Robespierre: The part was written for Jenny. I’ve been a fan of hers, and have seen her and Gabe perform in Big Terrific since 2009, so I definitely wrote with their style in mind and how they tell jokes. Their voices were in my head. Jenny and Donna share the same style for sure. They go up onstage and tell stories about their life. Donna gets a little more personal than Jenny—

JS: Or just in different areas, because I can get pretty personal. Gabe and I just wanted the standup to be good. We’ve both seen a lot of movies where you can tell the people aren’t standup comedians. He loaned a lot of his own standup to the film, so some of the jokes repeat from his act. He also had some new ones that he did in the movie that he then used in his Comedy Central special because he loved them so much.

GR: We actually spent a day in San Francisco in December after we won an in-kind grant from the San Francisco Film Society. Jenny, Gabe, Gaby Hoffman, myself, and our producer Elisabeth Holm spent a morning doing a table read of the full script. Then we went on a hike, and in the afternoon we did standup. We had a tape recorder and Jenny and Gabe workshopped a bunch of stuff. That’s where Gabe came up with the Grindr material. A lot of the material that’s in the movie spawned from that day. Then, on the morning of shooting the standup scenes, which was very early—we shot all the comedy at like 5 a.m.—it was a combination of what was born in the workshop and what Jenny just came up with the day-of. It was a beautiful collaboration.

JS: The style is the same as what I do in life. I wanted to use that style because when I do standup, I feel like I’m taking a lot of jumps—like I’m jumping off something high into a lake or something. I wanted that feeling of immediacy. I used maybe a couple of my own actual standup jokes in it, but most of it was from Gillian and our workshop. I thought it was important to make sure that those jokes were specific to Donna.

I thought I’d heard Gabe do the coffee bit before (“I like my coffee like I like my men: weak and bitter.”)

JS: Yeah, that’s a classic Liedman bit.

GR: I laugh at that every time. That’s one of those jokes where I’ve heard it a thousand times in the editing room, but it never stops being funny. It’s just the best joke.

JS: It really is.

What was the most difficult aspect of balancing the comedic and dramatic aspects of this story? 

GR: I think Jenny did a really good job of doing that. A great example of that is a moment where there’s not a whole lot of dialogue happening, it’s very quiet, and it’s subtle but I see it: when she’s having the procedure done, she sort of smirks because she notices the Crocs the nurse is wearing and it reminds her of her mom and everything that’s been going on with Max. Then she falls into the light sedation and is contemplating everything that’s going on, and that one tear rolls down her cheek. It all happens in 20 seconds with no dialogue, but Jenny’s face is so malleable, like you can see what’s going on behind her eyes. It’s really beautiful. I think those are really tough, difficult moments. On the page it makes sense, but in the moment when it’s being acted, you’re not sure if the person can pull it off. [Slate laughs] But Jenny definitely does!

JS: I’m glad that Gillian thinks that! [laughs] I love that scene too. I’m not sure how to describe how I perform, to be honest. I think it’s actually better for me to not dissect it, and just continue to make sure that I understand the separation between myself and the character, and to have enough focus in the scene to make sure that I’m not reacting the way that I, Jenny, would react. But the one thing I’m sure of is that there’s a sensitivity running through both the standup scenes that are confident and the standup scenes that are aggressive, like when she’s bombing. And that sensitivity runs through those scenes just as much as when she’s in bed crying with her mom. That sensitivity is what makes her a very tuned-in and observant person.

When it came time for editing, how did you find the right balance for how much standup to include so that the audience didn’t feel overwhelmed and lose sight of the narrative?

GR: It wasn’t just in the standup bits. I think we wanted to pace the jokes through the whole movie. Donna’s pretty funny offstage too, but we didn’t want to just have a joke per page. I have to give a huge shout-out to the editor of the film, Casey Brooks. This is his first narrative after previously doing a bunch of documentaries and commercials. He really grabbed the best jokes, the best performances and takes, and we weaved together this movie that isn’t like “Pow-pow-pow, fart-fart-fart!” Instead, it shows the emotionality of what it’s like in real life. One second you can be funny, and the next you can be very depressing.

JS: It’s a testament to Gillian’s confidence and flexibility and freshness. She was fresh in every moment as a director. It was very clear what she wanted Donna to say, and it was very clear to me that I didn’t want to sound like I was auditioning for drama school. I didn’t want to be, like, monologuing. And to find that place meant to just take it line-by-line. Gill would guide me through while I was doing the standup to help me if we needed to adjust it, so that it felt like she was really telling more of a story than saying a piece of writing. We took the time to do that, and when I watch it now I think it’s there: I can see Donna trying to find safe footing with each step, and I can see the pleasure that she finds each time she takes one more step forward into what she’s trying to say. But that was because in the moment, we were trying to do that as well.

Donna has such a tough journey in this movie, and she finds herself on the receiving end of a lot of pep talks. What do you think is the key to giving a really effective pep talk? Because I felt very uplifted and ready to go just as an audience member.

GR: I think the secret to giving a good pep talk is not thinking that you know more than the other person.

JS: Right. That’s a really good way to put it.

GR: [mock voice] Checking your ego at the door!

Leave it outside.

JS: I don’t think I can put it better. That’s it.

And getting Gaby Hoffman to deliver it is also helpful.

GR: Yeah.

JS: Amazing.

How has the reaction been to the film in different parts of the country as you’ve taken it around the festival and screening circuit?

GR: It’s been wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Throughout all these fests, we get off the stage after the Q&As—which are great—and what’s cool is that some people come up to us afterwards and tell us about their lives. One older woman said that the movie changed her narrative about an abortion she had in the ‘60s. That was cool. We took the film to Rotterdam, which doesn’t have the same social issues or legislation as we do. But because it’s not a story about the issue, it’s about one woman’s experience, this audience also found it to be very heartfelt and were excited to see it.

JS: Also, the movie doesn’t say that it’s something else other than what it is. It’s not like a secret ending—will she or won’t she have the abortion? It’s very straightforward about what it’s going to be. At this point, the people who’ve seen it and the people who will see it know what it is.

GR: And we’re okay with it igniting a conversation. I think we’re in a bubble right now, with film festivals and lots of like-minded, awesome, arty, liberal people, which is wonderful and exciting and encouraging. I guess we’ll see when it starts to roll out to theaters on June 6. See how I snuck that in?

JS: Like, what happens when people just stumble in because it’s hot out and they want AC?

I was wondering what kind of backstory you imagined for Donna’s parents, because when I was watching the movie I couldn’t quite picture them together.

GR: You couldn’t see them in the ‘80s, walking down the sidewalk pushing a big stroller?

I could see what ended the marriage.

JS: Well, a lot of times when you see two people who are divorced you can see exactly what ended the marriage.

That’s true.

JS: I can picture them together. You know, she’s an academic, he’s a creative person. He says he made television shows. They were probably two young minds who were really turned on by each other. He was turned on by how driven and organized she was, she was turned on by how imaginative and wacky he was. It seemed like a perfect match!

GR: And she’s a hard laugh, so when you do win that chuckle from the mom, it feels so good.

JS: He’s not as serious as all the grumps and the tight-butts that are in academia.

GR: [laughs] He isn’t a tight-butt.

JS: And she’s an uptown girl! [laughs] I don’t know. I can see them together, but I guess it’s my job to picture that.

So where did the idea to have this running Crocs gag come from? Are you fans of the footwear?

GR: Well, I’m the lucky gal who got to take them home at the end of the shoot, so I wear them every single day of my life now. Also, the green sweatpants. Jenny got some beautiful sweaters.

JS: Yeah, I took some stuff.

GR: You know what, I honestly can’t remember where the Crocs came from. It’s always been in the script.

JS: I could go either way on Crocs. I mean, you’re not gonna catch me wearing them, but I’d way rather wear Crocs than those shoes that have, like, fingers for the toes? I hate those. I’m on the verge of punching people when they wear them to the supermarket. It’s like, How dare you? You might as well have your dick hanging out. That’s how I feel. They’re so gross. They’re rude! They’re rude shoes.

GR: I saw so many of them in the airport yesterday.

JS: I saw a dude wearing them at Whole Foods! I was like, “Sir, this is a fancy supermarket with an open-air salad bar. Don’t wear those.”

They’re like biker shorts for feet. (attribution: Dino-Ray Ramos)

GR: Ew, totally.

Wearing them is like an act of aggression.

JS: I think so! It’s like, “This is me!”

“Deal with it!”

JS: Nobody cares, man. Go to your house.

GR: My brother and his wife wears Crocs.

JS: They do?

GR: Just in the house. They put their children in Crocs too.

JS: Oh, I don’t like that at all.

GR: But when I go over, I do put them on and I’m like, Holy fucking shit. I mean, I will never wear them outside, but they are very, very comfortable.

JS: That’s like what happened with Uggs. For me, Uggs equals, you know, not super-chic; there’s a lot of sorority gals wearing Uggs. And more power to ‘em! But then they give them to you on set sometimes as comfort shoes, and you’re like [makes face of undignified pleasure]. It’s like each of your toes is on a little lamb.

Unfortunately we have to wrap things up! In closing, is there a question you’ve been getting while promoting this film that you’re tired of answering?

JS: I guess everybody wants to know about the title of the film, why it’s called Obvious Child.

GR: I just feel like for some reason my answer displeases the crowd. I think I’m a little lackluster when I say it, like “Ehh…Paul Simon song…loved since I was a kid…listening in the car…” So I feel like I need to work on bringing the morale up on that. Or maybe just make up a new story.

JS: I said she should just use the flux capacitor story that Doc Brown has in Back to the Future, where she hit her head on the toilet and idea came to her.

GR: “It came to me while I was cooking…”

JS: “I was having a massive orgasm and I heard this song!”

Obvious Child is now playing in San Francisco.

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